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Jerry Brown's plan to cut redevelopment agencies could sink Escondido, San Diego stadium plans

Escondido wants to build a minor league baseball park, and San Diego wants a new home for the NFL's Chargers. Redevelopment funds would probably be needed to make either a reality.

February 19, 2011|By Tony Perry, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from San Diego — If Gov. Jerry Brown succeeds in abolishing municipal redevelopment agencies, it will most likely scuttle plans for a minor-league baseball park in Escondido and a new Chargers stadium in downtown San Diego, according to officials in both cities.

The two cities had been counting on money from redevelopment agency coffers to make private-public partnerships a reality.

Escondido wants to build a stadium to convince San Diego Padres co-owner Jeff Moorad to transfer the Portland Beavers farm team to the northern San Diego suburb. The City Council had tentatively approved using $50 million in redevelopment funds.

City Manager Clay Phillips said the council believes that a ballpark and a Triple-A team could be an economic boost to the city and could encourage other businesses — restaurants and nightspots, for example — to move nearby.

"Without a redevelopment agency, it can't happen," he said.

In San Diego, use of redevelopment funds was seen as a last-chance to build a downtown venue to replace the city-owned Qualcomm Stadium in Mission Valley. To make such a deal possible, San Diego legislators stealthily pushed a bill through the state Legislature last session lifting a cap on redevelopment spending.

The San Diego idea is not as close to fruition as the Escondido plan.

In San Diego, one nascent plan would involve using several hundred million dollars in redevelopment funds that, in tandem with the Chargers' contribution, would build a Super Bowl-worthy stadium near the Padres' Petco Park.

On a list of redevelopment projects kept by the Centre City Development Corp., the environmental cleanup alone of a potential football stadium site has been estimated at $150 million.

Without a new stadium, the chances increase that the Chargers will leave San Diego, possibly after the 2011 season. Qualcomm was built in 1967 and is one of oldest stadiums in the NFL.

Elimination of the city's redevelopment agency, said Chargers official Mark Fabiani, would "make the downtown San Diego stadium idea nearly impossible to implement."

"You never want to say never in the stadium building business, but it's very, very hard to see how something could work downtown without a redevelopment agency," he said.

The Chargers and San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders turned to a downtown site as a possibility after the team flirted with Escondido, Oceanside and Chula Vista without success.

Redevelopment agencies collect property taxes that would otherwise go to schools and counties to improve blighted areas. Often, the agencies partner on projects with private developers, providing subsidies or donating land. The agencies are mostly run by city council members.

By abolishing these agencies, the governor has predicted the state would save $1.7 billion in the next fiscal year and send much more money back to cash-strapped school districts and counties. The state's nearly 400 active redevelopment agencies take in about $5 billion a year.

Even if redevelopment funds were available, getting San Diego voters to approve a stadium deal would be difficult. Sanders has said he would like to see a plan put before voters in 2012, the last year of his second term.

The argument now underway in Los Angeles over using public subsidies — through bond sales, loans or a below-market rate lease of public property — to help build a stadium to please the National Football League has been a staple of San Diego political discourse for several years. Opposition to the idea of "subsidizing millionaire sports team owners" is fierce in fiscally conservative San Diego.

Sanders' arch-rival, former City Atty. Mike Aguirre, was so vehemently opposed to using public money for a Chargers stadium that Fabiani, on behalf of the Spanos family that owns the team, branded him the biggest stumbling block to a San Diego deal. Aguirre was defeated in 2008 in his bid to remain city attorney.

Moorad bought the Portland Beavers in December from owner Merritt Paulson, the son of Wall Street investment banker and former secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson. Merritt Paulson is shifting his interest to his soccer team, the Portland Timbers.

Although negotiations with Escondido were not yet complete, the tentative plan involved having the Beavers — maybe with a new name — play in Tucson for two seasons while the Escondido stadium was built.

The 15-acre site is north of downtown Escondido, close to Interstate 15 and Highway 78. Boosters believe Padres fans would flock to the stadium to see rising stars on their way to "the show" in San Diego or maybe aging stars holding on for one last hurrah.

In Escondido and San Diego, officials are considering a strategy being used in other cities: shifting at least some of their redevelopment funds to the city treasury in advance of the governor's idea being adopted.

But in that context, sports venues appear to rate below other redevelopment projects on each city's wish-list. "We need other things too," Phillips said.

tony.perry@latimes.com

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